Packaging evil as splatter-pulp There's got to be more to it than this, says Pete Davies

The Evil that Men Do by Brian Masters Doubleday, pounds 16.99: Harmful neurotics, silly saints and nasty passages from the classics.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Readers expecting a gorefest will be disappointed. The packaging's all there - the doomy pomp of the title, the jacket with the disembodied mad eyes on a ground of blood-red, the praise for Masters' previous work on Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen - but don't be fooled. This is philosophy here, this is a dig into the deep matter of why we do bad stuff. This is "an incisive, thoughtful, and provocative meditation...''

And I'm the King of Buganda. Sloppy, self-regarding, banal, this book is the intellectual equivalent of open-cast mining; foraging across a mountain of other people's ideas, it may unearth an incontestable conclusion, but it doesn't half trash the landscape along the way. It reaches its nadir with a perfunctory account of the Holocaust lifted wholesale from Martin Gilbert - but there is laziness throughout.

It won't do to warn against unthinking simplifications, and then to claim that pit-bull owners "are all, to a man, feeble brutes''. You cannot describe Joan of Arc as "arguably a harmful neurotic'', and yet say sixty pages later that "there was nothing of the hysteric about her''. It's patently nonsense on any page to proclaim that "there are dozens of St Francises in all our lives''. Other statements are simply risible. Audrey Hepburn had "more spunk'' than Jesus? Penelope Keith is in "the dominant five per cent of the human race''? As for the author's announcement that, "it is certainly true that men ... sometimes slap their mates across the face'' with their penises, I'm afraid at that point I had to drop the book helpless with laughter, afflicted with surreal visions of a pack of Loaded readers indulging in horseplay in the public bar.

Even properly construed, it's a peculiar image, but some of Brian Masters's other remarks are pretty peculiar too. His contention that we hear more about child abuse than its incidence warrants sits ill with his apparent downgrading of some of it to mere "silly sexual play''; his solution for the hysteric presumptions of St Theresa of Lisieux, that "she ought to have been spanked'', is at best carelessly brusque. More mundanely, his cod-behavioural description of a row in the kitchen ("the husband has disordered materials on the wife's territory'') is woefully hackneyed - but if you can extrapolate from nature that "the appropriate behaviour of the female is to yield and submit'', then the charge (to put this mildly) that you're not really up to speed on today's gender front cannot be far behind.

Masters's attitudes are an odd mishmash all round; he lurches without blinking from the hearteningly liberal to the sweepingly obtuse . Righteously dismissive of the nastier shades of modern Conservatism, he argues passionately and persuasively that no moral system can be complete if it doesn't accord rights to animals as much as to people. Yet the next moment he's declaring that "Christianity is morally unwholesome'' or making opaque remarks about the similarity between the gentlemen's clubs of London and communities of greylag geese.

This last has little more purpose than to let us know he's a club member himself - and the fact that he went to the same school as Michael Caine (not to mention his fawning paragraph about Richard Branson) is similarly irrelevant to his supposed subjects, namely good and evil. As to them, he trawls through genetics, determinism, Darwin, Sartre, religion, madness and much more besides, in order to finally tell us that if we all thought a little more about what we did, the world would be a better place.

Not only incontestable, this conclusion is also bogglingly obvious - and it would bear more weight if Masters had done more thinking himself. This is a writer, however, who tells us that he finds the burning out of the Cyclops' eye in the Odyssey "unquotably nasty'', yet who can still give us specific detail on the Wakefield man who tore his wife's face apart with his bare hands, or the Californian killer who ripped his victim's nipples off with a pair of pliers. When you can be inconsistent like that, all claims to high intent fall away; evil's just an itch, all Masters does is scratch it, and for all the results are worth, Doubleday might as well have given us the splatter-pulp package.